24 Frames per Second

I spent the last weekend at my third annual l’Abri Film Festival, the glorious 24 Frames per Second. This is basically a village film festival, but one that punches far above its weight, with serious debate of intelligent films in a friendly atmosphere. English l’Abri take over the village hall and invite locals, students and friends from far and wide to watch and discuss seven films over 1½ days. It is a real celebration of all things filmic, and of the value of a thoughtful approach to media and storytelling.

This year was particularly special, as the festival saw the UK ‘premier’ of Jaap van Heusden’s film Win/Win, complete with a Q&A with the director. It’s always a joy to hear a director’s perspective on their work, but even more so here, as Jaap talked on current projects, thoughts on film making and writing, and offered opinion on other films in the programme. Jaap came to this little village film festival instead of the Berlin Film Festival, where he was nominated for, and won, best screenplay. How amazing is that?!

Now, I don’t ordinarily review films, but I want to share a few thoughts on this year’s programme, while it’s still fresh in my mind. So, in the style of Mr Jackson

Win/Win

A light-hearted film about banking? An enjoyable exposition of the (un)realities of trading on futures? You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true…

Belgian émigré Ivan has a talent for numbers and a quirky, almost autistic savant personality. Working somewhere in the bowels of a financial firm he gets himself noticed by the traders by randomly placing tips on Post-It notes around the building. Elevated to the big leagues, Ivan soon becomes the firm’s Golden Boy, as it seems he just can’t lose…

A study of the dislocation and alienation of success and the hyper-unreality of financial trading. The pursuit of the abstract is dehumanising. Ivan’s gradual dislocation from reality brilliantly portrayed through some of the best sound editing I’ve heard in years. A beautifully shot and framed film, colours bleached out as he falls further into isolation. And the persistent questions throughout: what is the cost of success? Is there a value in losing?

Doubt

Accusations of child abuse within a catholic school in 60’s America. Politics, power-plays and varying understandings of what is ‘right’. Wonderful acting by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, but very ‘staged’ – the films roots as a play too obviously on display.

This is a film about contrasting views of righteousness – the conflict between moral regulation and compassion, between right action and right motivation. It’s about the doggedness of conviction and the persistence of praxis in the light of doubt and vanishing belief. The two lead roles have enough ambiguity and conviction to allow your own sympathies to come to the fore. Most people will find either Father Flynn or Sister Aloysius a monster, but I wonder if they are not both… Different forms of evil wrapped up in conviction? Or just the impossibility of scrutinising another’s soul?

Anderman

A return to the festival, this short documentary by Jaap van Heusden is ostensibly about a man caring for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The reality is more about the infectiousness nature of madness, and the impossibility of holding on to reality in the face of another’s disbelief in it. Anderman is a fascinating character – brutally direct, somewhat unhinged, and yet captivated by beauty and finding solace in art. 15 mins is just not enough…

The Return

A man appears at the home of two young brothers, whose mother simply says, “your father is home”. Who is this stranger, and what is his motivation? Where has he been for the last twelve years? Father and sons set out on a camping trip with a mysterious purpose, and as time goes on the sons try to understand this stranger and his place in their lives…

The Return is traumatic film, showing a reality far more brutal than we are used to in the west. It is one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, but thematically it weighs on your soul. The director’s very deliberate use of cryptic religious imagery at the start of the film suggests – on later analysis – that he intends for the Father to be seen as some sort of comment on the nature of God. But what a picture!

This man, a cipher, absent at the beginning and end of the story. An unknowable, confusing and seemingly arbitrary plan of action. Brutal and violently-given instruction, arbitrary and extreme punishment. A stream of criticism and dismissive distancing. The only expression of affection too little, two late… I have to say that this is a picture of god I can identify with. It might not be yours, but it does seem consistent.

The film weighs on you. You search for positives, for resolution, for a sense of ‘plan’ to the man’s actions. The sons do learn from the father, they are changed by their experience. But they are equipped by him for a brutal and harsh life that they must live on their own. The father remains throughout unknown and unknowable, and the children unaware that they are loved.

What message should we take from this?

Lourdes

A mess. This pseudo-documentary does not have the courage of its convictions. Supposedly an ‘open’ approach to satire, creating space for the viewer to decide, it is instead muddy, boring and clichéd. There is no bite for the satire, and no miracle for the faithful. I’m amazed this film won awards, and surprised that it ended up on this programme. One to avoid.

Lars and the Real Girl

An extreme introvert, unable to properly interact with society, uses a ‘fake’ girlfriend – a sex doll bought over the internet – to help him transition into the world. Giving every impression that he sees ‘Bianca’ as real, Lars’ family, church and co-workers are forced to treat her as such. And beautiful things happen as a result.

This film is an absolute delight. By far the highlight of the festival. It is at points profound and side-splittingly hilarious, and throughout remains deeply touching. This is a picture of real community in action – surrounding, accommodating and loving others’ brokenness. It is collective acceptance and healing. The need for help in overcoming our fears and stepping out into the world. It is everything I hope for for the future.

Wonderful.

A Serious Man

A cruel, cruel end to the film festival. Our 7th film was just too strange for us to make sense of  – we were too tired, too over-stimulated. My second encounter with the Cohen Brother’s latest, I found it just as confusing the second time round. It is at points very funny, but just too frustrating, as you cannot make sense of all the pieces.

“Embrac(ing) the mystery” is dissatisfying – even if it is the point of the film – as you identify with the lead character too much.

Jim Paul, the l’Abriite who puts the film festival together, always swears that there is no intended theme. But strong thematic elements flow through the seven films: absent fathers/parents and the consequences of such; the struggle to find your place in the world and to deal with your brokenness; madness in the face of complexity; the inability to find satisfying answers. And most powerful of all, doubt and faith.

All the protagonists have some reason to (come to) doubt the narrative of their tradition. They all struggle with questions of identity in the face of challenging circumstances. Arguably, they all have a different worldview by the end of their stories.

The frustration is, of course, that these stories rarely share a comforting resolution. Worldviews are challenged, but ‘answers’ are not forthcoming. I wonder what it says about me that Win/Win and Lars, the two stories with genuine resolution, are the ones I found satisfying? And The Return and A Serious Man, the films with the least resolution, the most questions, the ones that trouble me and weigh on my mind? Perhaps I just have enough ambiguity in my life as it is right now…

Anyway, this post is now quite long enough. The l’Abri Film Festival is to be heartily recommended. It is fun, intelligent, challenging and moving, in a great setting and with some amazing people. Next year I’d like to get a gang of folks together to go down from London. Anyone interested?

Advertisements

A better word

Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s outgoing Religious Affairs correspondent, has written a piece for the Comment Is Free site about his journey from faith to agnosticism. Except that he doesn’t.

It’s an interesting piece, and worth the 60 seconds of your life it will take to read it, but the journey he describes is really the beginnings of a gradual slide from Theism to Atheism. Stephen is mired in increasing doubts, and has come to the conclusion that his historical faith is untenable. Which is all well and good, and all-too familiar.

The problem I have is that he implies that this state of affairs is best described by the term Agnostic (or agnosticism, if we’re getting our tenses right). And that isn’t what agnostic means. As I’ve said before, the definition of agnostic is thus:

agnostic |agˈnɒstɪk|

noun

a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

Now, the second part of that definition is actually quite new. It’s the unfortunate common usage. The technical definition is the first part: someone who believes the answer to the question is unknowable.

This is a useful label, because it is a real philosophical position. The problem is that this isn’t the position that Stephen Bates has arrived at. Or my current position. Or that of the majority of the country.

So what word is appropriate? What word best fits the position of the multitude, who either doubt, are uncertain, or have just not given it much thought? Most people seem to live their lives without having settled on a theological or philosophical definition of their beliefs, unable to firmly adhere to the tenants of any particular camp. Some minds might find this situation intellectually untenable, but the reality is that the deep rigour of thought and debate necessary to come to a resolved position escapes so many of us, at least for large portions of our lives.

We need another word. But while that is easy to say, a solution is not easy to find. One might suggest the term “irreligious” but this is both a horrible word, and altogether inaccurate. Very few are irreligious, in two primary senses. First, it is rare that an individual does not have some sense of interest in spiritual concepts, or some (perhaps semi-conscious) understanding of forces greater than themselves, be that a theistic god or the forces of the market. It seems that the default position in many of us is somewhat superstitious; looking for reason and explanation for events beyond ourselves. This cannot therefore be described as an irreligious tendency.

The second reason that the term “irreligious” does not seem appropriate is that the word literally means an indifference or hostility to religion. Now, I am sure that there are many people who are profoundly hostile to organised religion, and for whom this is an accurate moniker. It would certainly fit someone like the good Mr Dawkins. But then, Dawkins is an avowed Atheist, so this really doesn’t help us. And the rest of us are unfortunately neither hostile nor indifferent. People like Mr Bates and myself have a religious heritage, religious friends and family, and a history of wrestling with the questions of faith. None of that is indifference, and the result is not hostility. We still sympathise with religious figures, and love our religious families and communities, even though we may find much we disagree with. Even much that is deplorable.

So I’m stuck. I’m tired of fudging my answers to this question. The phrase “doubter” seems clunky and non-specific. “Agnostic” is, as we have discussed, inappropriate. As is “irreligious”. What does that leave us with then? Any ideas?

Identification

18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19″Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.'”  21″All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.

[Luke 18:18-23 (NIV). Mark’s fuller version here]

Have you ever thought about what bible character you identify with most? It’s a useful exercise, to find a story where you feel the outlook or attitude of the protagonist mirrors yours, and see if you can learn from it… It’s not the most scholarly form of bible study, but it has its benefits. 🙂

When asked this question I have always had a few stock answers (Gideon, Jonah, Jeremiah), designed in some ways to get the questioner to leave me alone. But recently I’ve been dwelling on this question myself. The answer I’ve some up with hasn’t cheered me.

Soren Kierkegaard said many wonderful things, a few of them quite challenging. Here’s one for starters:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly.

“Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship.

In recent years, as I’ve read the bible, I’ve been unable to gloss over the words of Jesus in the gospels. I’ve tried really hard, but it just doesn’t work. The enormity of even simple things, like turning the other cheek, going the extra mile hit me between the eyes. Never mind the hard stuff, like taking up your cross… [Matt 16:24-25]

The picture that has begun to open up before me as I’ve read and wondered, is one where faith in God is grounded in action, where it is not enough to profess a belief, if you don’t have the actions that match. Or, in the words of Batman:

Its not who I am inside, it is what I do that defines me.

The Christianity of my upbringing, the tradition that I have swam in and clung to, says that what matters is that most ephemeral of qualities: faith. The declaration of Christ as Saviour is the most important action; the only one that is truly necessary. After all, what is Grace, if not an unmerited favour for which no response could match?

But Faith without works is dead [James 2:17]

Jesus issues challenge after challenge in the gospels that seem to be rooted in action. He talks of judgement based on works, on helping the poor. He talks always in terms of Kingdom; a new way of doing.

And that leaves me battling with the response. Surely, if my faith is true and valid, it should be outwardly expressed, visible in action. It should cost.

I see it; I know it. It tears me up. Because I know what my life should look like, but I struggle to motivate myself to change. I have begun to realise that I identify most clearly with the Rich Young Ruler of Luke 18 and Mark 10.

***

Here is a man who comes to Jesus seeking something more than the everyday Jewish faith he has been living. Reading Marks more in-depth account, we see him run up to Jesus, fall at His feet and implore Him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?

This isn’t an idle question from an interested bystander. It isn’t the trickery of the religious authorities we see elsewhere. It is the heartfelt yearnings of someone who has lived his life by the outward precepts of the Jewish scriptures and yet feels powerfully the need for something more.

The young man obviously feels that Jesus has something he needs. Perhaps he has heard about Him from others and travelled a distance to see Him. Perhaps he as been following, waiting, standing on the edges of the crowd until Jesus comes to leave. But whatever, he finally takes the plunge and runs to Jesus, hoping, begging for an answer to the yearnings that he feels inside.

Jesus challenges him, questions his devotion. Who does he think Jesus is? Has he sought to follow the revelation God has already brought to the Jews? Is he really ready to change…?

And seeing the confusion, the restlessness, the hope in the young mans eyes, Jesus loves him.

***

Jesus’ challenge to the young man is to abandon the ways of the world, and to find God in meeting the needs of others. It is to let go of material trappings, let go of security and embrace the way of Grace (and the life of the itinerant preacher before him).

The young man goes away crestfallen. It seems it is just too much to ask.

***

Most people read this passage as a warning against too great a love of money. Yes, but you miss the point. This passage is a companion to the one in John where Nicodemus asks the same question as the young man here [John 3:1-21].

Jesus’ answer is essentially the same; it is about abandoning what has gone before and starting again. It is about taking on a completely new set of values. It is about being born anew

Yet in this passage, far more than in John, the cost of Jesus’ challenge is apparent. Nicodemus struggles with the existential concept of rebirth; the young man here struggles with the reality of what it would mean for him. Jesus clearly indicates that the price of ‘eternal life’ is high: abandoning your current way of life and starting completely afresh.

This isn’t a theoretical concept. It isn’t a simple matter of praying a prayer. It’s a real, life changing decision. “Decide here and now if you are ready to completely change your life as you know it. Are you ready to abandon your material security; your cosy self-righteousness? Are you prepared to live for the sake of others instead of yourself? Are you prepared to follow me, whatever the cost?

Its no wonder the rich young man finds this too much. It wasn’t really what he was expecting. The cost is so high!

***

I’ve grown up with an understanding of Christianity that really hasn’t been that costly. It’s been about personal morality and outlook, rather than active sacrifice. Being good has always been more important than doing good. Yet that doesn’t seem to cut it for me any more.

The more I have understood of the gospels, the more I’ve realised that my own life fails to meet the challenge that Jesus issues. I look at myself and I see that young man, with his good intentions and earnest seeking, with his desire to change mitigated by the comfort provided by his wealth.

Years ago I would have said “money isn’t that important to me; I don’t care for riches… I’m not that person” and to a degree, I would have been right. I’ve never been motivated by achieving the highest paid job or the nicest clothes or whatever. But what I see looking at these passages now is a young man for whom honest, hungry desire for holiness and God hit hard against the sheer cost of discipleship. And I don’t blame him for walking away…

That’s me. I don’t know what I need to step across that invisible line, but I don’t have it yet. I’ll leave you with more from Kierkegaard:

Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.